Page 384 | Decolonising the Mind
Ngugi wa Thiong'o
from Decolonising the Mind
In this essay one of Africa's most distinguished novelists discusses some of
the connections between language and culture.
I was born into a large peasant family: father, four wives and about twenty-
eight children. I also belonged, as we all did in those days, to a wider
extended family and to the community as a whole.
We spoke Gi kuyH as we worked in the fields. We spoke Gi kttyu in and
outside the home. I can vividly recall those evenings of storytelling around
the fireside. It was mosdy the grown-ups telling the children but everybody
was interested and involved. We children would re-tell the stories the
following day to other children who worked in the fields picking the
pyrethrum flowers, tea-leaves or coffee beans of our European and African
The stories, with mostly animals as the main characters, were all told in
Gi kuy U. Hare, being small, weak but full of innovative wit and cunning, was
our hero. We identified with him as he struggled against the brutes of prey
like lion, leopard, hyena. His victories were our victories and we learnt that
the apparently weak can outwit the strong. We followed the animals in their
struggle against hostile nature— drought, rain, sun, wind— a confrontation
often forcing them to search for forms of co-operation. But we were also
interested in their struggles amongst themselves, and particularly between the
beasts and the victims of prey. These twin struggles, against nature and other
animals, reflected real-life struggles in the human world.
Not that we neglected stories with human beings as the main characters.
There were two types of characters in such human-centred narratives: the
species of truly human beings with qualities of courage, kindness, mercy,
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hatred of evil, concern for others; and a man-eat-man two-mouthed species
with qualities of greed, selfishness, individualism and hatred of what was
good for the larger co-operative community. Co-operation as the ultimate
good in a community was a constant theme* It could unite human beings
with animals against ogres and beasts of prey, as in the story of how dove,
after being fed with castor-oil seeds, was sent to fetch a smith working far
away from home and whose pregnant wife was being threatened by these
man-eating two-mouthed ogres.
There were good and bad story-tellers. A good one could tell the same
story over and over again, and it would always be fresh to us, the listeners.
He or she could tell a story told by someone else and make it more alive and
dramatic. The differences really were in the use of words and images and the
inflexion of voices to effect different tones.
We therefore learnt to value words for their meaning and nuances.
Language was not a mere string of words. It had a suggestive power well
beyond the immediate and lexical meaning. Our appreciation of the
suggestive magical power of language was reinforced by the games we played
with words through riddles, proverbs, transpositions of syllables, or through
nonsensical but musically arranged words. So we learnt the music of our
language on top of the content. The language, through images and symbols,
gave us a view of the world, but it had a beauty of its own. The home and
the field were then our pre-primary school but what is important, for this
discussion, is that the language of our evening teach-ins, and the language of
pur immediate and wider community, and the language of our work in the
^fields were one.
And then I went to school, a colonial school, and this harmony was
broken. The language of my education was no longer the language of my
culture. I first went to Kamaandura, missionary run, and then to another
called Maanguuu run by nationalists grouped around the Gikuyu Independ-
ent and Karinga Schools Association. Our language of education was still
Gikuyu. The very first time I was ever given an ovation for my writing was
over a composition in Gikuyu. So for my first four years there was still
harmony between the language of my formal education and that of the
Limuru peasant community.
It was after the declaration of a state of emergency over Kenya in 1 952
that all the schools run by patriotic nationalists were taken over by the
colonial regime and were placed under District Education Boards chaired by
Englishmen. English became the language of my formal education. In
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Kenya, English became more than a language: it was Slanguage, and all the
others had to bow before it in deference.
Thus one of the most humiliating experiences was to be caught speaking
GikuyU in the vicinity of the school. The culprit was given corporal
punishment — three to five strokes of the cane on bare buttocks — or was
made to carry a metal plate around the neck with inscriptions such as I AM
STUPID or I AM A DONKEY. Sometimes the culprits were fined money they
could hardly afford. And how did the teachers catch the culprits? A button
was initially given to one pupil who was supposed to hand it over to whoever
was caught speaking his mother tongue. Whoever had the button at the end
of the day would sing who had given it to him and the ensuing process
would bring out all the culprits of the day. Thus children were turned into
witch-hunters and in the process were being taught the lucrative value of
being a traitor to one's immediate community.
The attitude to English was the exact opposite: any achievement in
spoken or written English was highly rewarded; prizes, prestige, applause; the
ticket to higher realms. English became the measure of intelligence and
ability in the arts, the sciences* and all the other branches of learning. English
became the main determinant of a child's progress up the ladder of formal
As you may know, the colonial system of education in addition to its
apartheid racial demarcation had the structure of a pyramid: a broad primary
base, a narrowihg secondary middle, and an even narrower university apex.
Selections from primary into secondary were through an examination, in my
time called Kenya African Preliminary Examination, in which one had to
pass six subjects ranging from Maths to Nature Study and Kiswahili. All the
papers were written in English. Nobody could pass the exam who failed the
English language paper no matter how brilliantly he had done in the other
subjects* I remember one boy in my class of 1954 who had distinctions in all
subjects except English, which he had failed. He was made to fail the entire
exam. He went on to become a turn boy in a bus company. I who had only
passes but a credit in English got a place at the Alliance High School, one of
the most elitist institutions for Africans in colonial Kenya. The requirements
for a place at the University, Makerere University College, were broadly the
same: nobody could go on to wear the undergraduate red gown, no matter
how brilliantly they had performed in all the other subjects unless they had
a credit-— not even a simple passl-— in English. Thus the most coveted place
in the pyramid and in the system was only available to the holder of an
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English language credit card. English was the official vehicle and the magic
formula to colonial elitedoth.
Literary education was now determined by the dominant language while
also reinforcing that dominance. Orature (oral literature) in Kenyan
languages stopped. In primary school I now read simplified Dickens and
Stevenson alongside Rider Haggard. Jim Hawkins, Oliver Twist, Tom
Brown — not Hare, Leopard and Lion— were now my daily companions in
the world of imagination. In secondary school, Scott and G.B. Shaw vied
with more Rider Haggard, John Buchan, Alan Paton, Captain W.E. Johns.
At Makerere I read English: from Chaucer to T.S. Eliot with a touch of
Thus language and literature were taking us further and further from
ourselves to other selves, from our world to other worlds.
What was the colonial system doing to us Kenyan children? What were
the consequences of, on the one hand, this systematic suppression of our
languages and the literature they carried, and on the other the elevation of
English and the literature it carried? To answer those questions, let me first
examine the relationship of language to human experience, human culture,
and the human perception of reality.
Language, any language, has a dual character: it is both a means of commu-
nication and a carrier of culture. Take English; It is spoken in Britain and in
Sweden and Denmark, But for Swedish and Danish people English is only
a means of communication with non-Scandinavians. It is not a carrier of
their culture. For the British, and particularly the English, it is additionally,
and inseparably from its use as a tool of communication, a carrier of their
culture and history. Or take Swahili in East and Central Africa. It is widely
used as a means of communication across many nationalities. But it is not
the carrier of a culture and history of many of those nationalities. However
in parts of Kenya and Tanzania, and particularly in Zanzibar, Swahili is
inseparably both a means of communication and a carrier of the culture of
those people to whom it is a mother-tongue.
Language as communication has three aspects or elements. There is first
what Karl Marx once called the language of real life, the element basic to the
whole notion of language, its origins and development: that is, the relations
people enter into with one anbmer in the labour process, the links they^
necessarily establish among themselves in the act of a people, a community
of human beings, producing wealth or means of life like food, clothing,
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houses. A human community really starts its historical being as a community
of co-operation in production through the division of labour; the simplest
is between man, woman and child within a household; the more complex
divisions are between branches of production such as those who are sole
hunters, sole gatherers of fruits or sole workers in metal. Then there are the
most complex divisions such as those in modern factories where a single
product, say a shirt or a shoe, is the result of many hands and minds.
Production is co-operation, is communication, is language, is expression of
a relation between human beings and it is specifically human.
The second aspect of language as communication is speech and it
imitates the language of real life, that is communication in production. The
verbal signposts both reflect and aid communication or the relation
established between human beings in the production of their means of life.
Language as a system of verbal signposts makes that production possible.
The spoken word is to relations between human beings what the hand is to
the relations between human beings and nature. The hand through tools
mediates between human beings and nature and forms the language of real
life: spoken words mediate between human beings and form the language of
The third aspect is the written signs. The written word imitates the
spoken. Where the first two aspects of language as communication through
the hand and the spoken word historically evolved more or less simulta-
neously, the written aspect is a much later historical development. Writing
is representation of sounds with visual symbols, from the simplest knot
among shepherds to tell the number in a herd or the hieroglyphics among
the Agikuyu gicaandi singers and poets of Kenya, to the most complicated
and different letter and picture writing systems of the world today.
In most societies the written and the spoken languages are the same, in
that they represent each other: what is on paper can be read to another
person and be received as that language, which the recipient has grown up
speaking. In such a society there is broad harmony for a child between the
three aspects of language as communication. His interaction with nature and
with other men is expressed in written and spoken symbols or signs which
are both a result of that double interaction and a reflection of it. The
association of the child's sensibility is with the language of his experience of
But there is more to it: communication between human beings is also
the basis and process of evolving culture. In doing similar lands of things and
actions over and over again under similar circumstances, similar even in their
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mutability, certain patterns, moves, rhythms, habits, attitudes, experiences
and knowledge emerge. Those experiences are handed over to the next
generation and become the inherited basis for their further actions on nature
and on themselves. There is a gradual accumulation of values whicK in time
become almost self-evident truths governing their conception of what is right
and wrong, good and bad, beautiful and ugly, courageous and cowardly,
generous and mean in their internal and external relations. Over a time this
becomes a way of life distinguishable from other ways of life. They develop
a distinctive culture and history. Culture embodies those moral, ethical and
aesthetic values, the set of spiritual eyeglasses, through which they come to
view themselves and their place in the universe. Values are the basis of a
people's identity, their sense of particularity as members of the human race.
All this is carried by language. Language as culture is the collective memory
bank of a peoples experience in history. Culture is almost indistinguishable
from the language that makes possible its genesis, growth, banking,
articulation and indeed its transmission from one generation to the next.
Language as culture also has three important aspects. Culture is a
product of the history which it in turn reflects. Culture in other words is a
product and a reflection of human beings communicating with one another
in the very struggle to create wealth and to control it. But culture does not
merely reflect that history, or rather it does so by actually forming images or
pictures of the world of nature and nurture. Thus the second aspect of
language as culture is as an image-forming agent in the mind of a child. Our
whole conception of ourselves as a people, individually and collectively, is
based on those pictures and images which may or may not correctly
correspond to the actual reality of the struggles with nature and nurture
which produced them in the first place. But our capacity to confront the
world creatively is dependent on how those images correspond or not to that
reality, how they distort or clarify the reality of our struggles. Language as
culture is thus mediating between me and my own self; between my own self
and other selves; between me and nature. Language is mediating in my very
being. And this brings us to the third aspect of language as culture. Culture
transmits or imparts those images of the world and reality through the
spoken and the written language, that is through a specific language. In other
words, the capacity to speak, the capacity to order sounds in a manner that
makes for mutual comprehension between human beings is universal. This
is the universality of language, a quality specific to human beings. It
corresponds to the universality of the struggle against nature and that
between human beings. But the particularity of the sounds, the words, the
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word order into phrases and sentences, and the specific manner, or laws, of
their ordering is what distinguishes one language from another. Thus a
specific culture is not transmitted through language in its universality but in
its particularity as the language of a specific community with a specific
history. Written literature and orature are the main means by which a
particular language transmits the images of the world contained in the
culture it carries.
Language as communication and as culture are then products of each
other. Communication creates culture: culture is a means of communication.
Language carries culture, and culture carries, particularly through orature
and literature, the entire body of values by which we come to perceive
ourselves and our place in the world. How people perceive themselves affects
how they look at their culture, at their politics and at the social production
of wealth, at their entire relationship to nature and to other beings. Language
is thus inseparable from ourselves as a community of human beings with a
specific form and character, a specific history, a specific relationship to the
So what was the colonialist imposition of a foreign language doing to us
The real aim of colonialism was to control the people's wealth: what they
produced, how they produced it, and how it was distributed; to control, in
other words, the entire realm of the language of real life. Colonialism
imposed its control of the social production of wealth through military
conquest and subsequent political dictatorship. But its most important area
of domination was the mental universe of the colonised, the control, through
culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the
world. Economic and political control can never be complete or effective
without mental control. To control a peoples culture is to control their tools
of self-definition in relationship to others.
For colonialism this involved two aspects of the same process: the
destruction or the deliberate undervaluing of a peoples culture, their art,
dances, religions, history, geography, education, orature and literature, and
the conscious elevation of the language of the coloniser. The domination of
a people's language by the languages of the colonising nations was crucial to
the domination of the mental universe of the colonised.
Take language as communication. Imposing a foreign language, and
suppressing the native languages as spoken and written, were already
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breaking the harmony previously existing between the African child and the
three aspects of language. Since the new language as a means of communica-
tion was a product of and was reflecting the "real language of life" elsewhere,
it could never as spoken or written properly reflect or imitate the real life of
that community. This may in part explain why technology always appears
to us as slightly external, their product and not ours. The word "missile" used
to hold an alien far-away sound until I recently learnt its equivalent in
Gikuyu, ngurukuhizrA it made me apprehend it differently. Learning, for
a colonial child, became a cerebral activity and not an emotionally felt
But since the new, imposed languages could never completely break the
native languages as spoken, their most effective area of domination was the
third aspect of language as communication, the written. The language of an
African child's formal education was foreign. The language of the books he
read was foreign. The language of his conceptualisation was foreign.
Thought, in him, took the visible form of a foreign language. So the written
language of a child's upbringing in the school (even his spoken language
within the school compound) became divorced from his spoken language at
home. There was often not the slightest relationship between the child's
written world, which was also the language of his schooling, and the world
of his immediate environment in the family and the community. For a
colonial child, the harmony existing between the three aspects of language
as communication was irrevocably broken. This resulted in the disassociation
of the sensibility of that child from his natural and social environment, what
we might call colonial alienation. The alienation became reinforced in the
teaching of history, geography, music, where bourgeois Europe was always
the centre of the universe.
This disassociation, divorce, or alienation from the immediate environ-
ment becomes clearer when you look at colonial language as a carrier of
Since culture is a product of the history of a people which it in turn
reflects, the child was now being exposed exclusively to a culture that was a
product of a world external to himself. He was being made to stand outside
himself to look at himself. Catching Them Young is the tide of a book on
racism, class, sex, and politics in children's literature by Bob Dixon.
"Catching them young" as an aim was even more true of a colonial child.
The images of his world and his place in it implanted in a child take years to
eradicate, if they ever can be.
Page39 2 I Decolonising the Mind
Since culture does not just reflect the world in images but actually,
through those images, conditions a child to see that world a certain way, the
colonial child was made to see the world and where he stands in it as seen
and defined by or reflected in the culture of the language of imposition.
And since those images are mostly passed on through orature and
literature it meant the child would now only see the world as seen in the
literature of his language of adoption. From the point of view of alienation,
that is of seeing oneself from outside oneself as if one was another self, it does
not matter that the imported literature carried the great humanist tradition
of the best Shakespeare, Goethe, Balzac, Tolstoy, Gorky, Brecht, Sholokhov,
Dickens. The location of this great mirror of imagination was necessarily
Europe and its history and culture and the rest of the universe was seen from
But obviously it was worse when the colonial, child was exposed to
images of his world as mirrored in the written languages of his coloniser.
Where his own native languages were associated in his impressionable mind
with low status, humiliation, corporal punishment, slow- footed intelligence
and ability or downright stupidity, non-intelligibility and barbarism, this was
reinforced by the world he met in the works of such geniuses of racism as a
Rider Haggard or a Nicholas Monsarrat; not to mention the pronouncement
of some of the giants of western intellectual and political establishment, such
us Hume ("..The negro is naturally inferior to the whites..."), Thomas
Jefferson (". . .The blacks. . .are inferior to the whites on the endowments of
both body and mind. . . "), or Hegel with his Africa comparable to a land of
childhood still enveloped in the dark mantle of the night as far as the
development of self-conscious history was concerned. Hegel's statement that
(here was nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in the African
character is representative of the racist images of Africans and Africa such a
colonial child was bound to encounter in the literature of the colonial
languages. The results could be disastrous.
1 . How do you feel the opening sentence affects the average Western
reader? Why would Ngugi choose to write this, and to place it in such
a prominent location in his essay?
2. What is the rhetorical purpose of paragraph M? Is it effective?
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3. In paragraph 1 5, Ngugi argues that a language has a communication
function for all people who speak that language, but that it also serves
as a carrier of culture for all those for whom that language is the
mother-tongue. If you speak two or more languages, does this
assertion meet with your own experience?
4. Discuss how the imposition of a foreign language breaks "the
harmony previously existing between the African child and the three
aspects of language" (paragraph 26).
5. Toward the end of his essay, Ngugi makes reference to the European-
based writers of literature he was forced to study as a child, and how
these stories did not match his own experiences. How do the poems,
essays, plays and novels you are being asked to read in this course
reflect your experiences? If you were the instructor of this course, how
would you go about selecting a reading list?